Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Writer's Life: Seven Things Writing Professors Never Tell You

A Guest Post by Lev Raphael

While author Lev Raphael had the good fortune in college to have an inspiring writing professor, neither she nor any other writing profs he took classes with later on talked to him about the writing life itself.

"I studied other writers and I studied my craft," he says, "but career was terra incognita, and what I discovered has often come as a surprise." Here’s a partial list of what he's learned, since over three decades after publishing his first short story, he says, "I’m still learning about the life I chose."

(Lev will by my featured guest on May's Muse & You Radio Show.)

1) Writing puts miles on you

As a kid, I wanted to write, as opposed to be a writer, but when I did imagine my future work life, I saw myself at work in a very serene large study with green velvet sofas facing each other in front of a fireplace, walls lined with leather-bound books, and a desk in a bay window overlooking the Hudson River. My visions were solitary, except when I imagined being interviewed in that serene, solid room. But since publishing my first book twenty years ago, I've been all over the country many dozens of times and traveled abroad to places I never dreamed of: Oxford University, Israel, The Jewish Museum in Vienna -- all to speak about my work.

Luckily for me, I'm an extrovert, took theater classes in college, and taught for many years, so being in front of an audience is second nature. Otherwise, I think the public side of my career would have been too draining. That was only the foundation, however, since I had to learn to do something most writers don't understand is vital: make the work I do in private a public entertainment.

After twenty years of touring and several international tours, although the glamour and excitement have worn somewhat thin, there’s enough there that I can still enjoy myself thoroughly engaging in the performance side of being a writer. And I still get revved up

2) Agents aren't super heroes or magicians.

I’ve known many people who feel that securing an agent, or switching to a different agent, is all they need to find fame, fortune, and glory. Well, as hard as it is to get an agent, and as indispensible as they may be for placing your work with a major publisher, having one doesn’t guarantee anything.

My first agent, in a time before email, never answered a phone call or letter, never sent me rejections for my novel, and I later found out that her lack of contact was due to over-involvement with her most famous client.

My second agent sent my mystery to editors who didn't like mysteries and before we could talk about that, she left the business. My third agent was so slow editors would ask "Is he dead?" My fourth agent was charming, but didn't move my career forward in the slightest. My fifth agent got bounced from her agency. My sixth agent moved to Japan. My current agent took my newest book to New York just as the bottom fell out of the stock market and publishing, too. I think you could safely say I have odd Agent Karma.

3) Being a writer takes more patience than writing does, and you have far less control.

Five years passed between the publication of my first and second stories. Five years of endless rejections. Some days, two to three manila envelopes would slide out of the mailbox in my apartment building's lobby into my hand when I opened it up. I’d won a prize for my first short story, which appeared in Redbook -- how could I have hit a dead end so quickly? Surely some other editor somewhere would feel the same way about my stories?

I’m stubborn, so I kept going, but with a diminishing sense of mission and hope. I reached such a low point that I was prepared to abandon writing as a career and seek another life path. For a while in the early 1980s I contemplated rabbinical school or training as a psychologist. I didn't get far with either venture. What happened? A poem by Joseph Brodsky -- “Aeneas and Dido” -- says it best: “But, as we know, precisely at the moment / when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.” A story I wrote in less than forty-eight hours, in almost a repetition of what led to my first publication, was accepted and the drought was over. That first dry spell was the longest, but it wasn’t the last, and they don’t get any easier to cope with.

4) You’d be surprised where your name or work might show up.

Back in the early '80s, I had two unexpected publications. A literary magazine in Ohio answered my submission of a prose poem with five copies of the magazine including my piece. Not that long after, a Jewish newspaper printed my short story without having told me it was accepted, and this bothered another editor who had already accepted it (though she ran the story a year later). A friend said, "Lev, head down to the bookstore and start checking magazines, who knows where else you were published without knowing it!”

I would go on to see my work quoted, referenced, written about in conference papers, academic articles and books. My first appearances in The New York Times weren't when a book of mine was reviewed, but surprisingly when my name was mentioned in an article about other Jewish authors, and then later when a review of mine from the Detroit Free Press was quoted in big print on the back page of the Arts Section.

5) No, I mean really surprised.

In the late 1980s I started combining research on the emotion of shame with my love for the writing of Edith Wharton and published some articles about her lesser known books like The Touchstone. A Wharton scholar to whom I'd sent some of my articles used my ideas about this novella in her next book without crediting me, and when I phoned her to mention it, she said, "We must have been working along the same lines." I reminded her she'd read my articles and enjoyed them, suggested her publisher put an errata slip in the book. She said, “But that would look like plagiarism!”

I grew up reverencing The New Yorker before I could even read more than its cartoons in issues lying around in the doctor's office. While I've never been reviewed there, or had any work accepted there, I have gotten in sideways, so to speak. A photo of one of my readings wound up in an ad supplement a few years ago, which was unexpected fun. Not so amusing: Daniel Mendelsohn recently echoed my unique linkage of Oprah, William Dean Howells, and a faked Holocaust memoir -- without mentioning my name. See page five of his review here.

6) Fans share more than you would imagine.

A book is such an intimate exchange between author and reader that fans may tell you very personal details of their lives, their histories. It's an honor to be the recipient of such revelations. I’ve met many readers who shared stories about their own problematic Jewish upbringing, which has made me feel my work gave them a voice, or at least catharsis. While touring with my book Winter Eyes, in which survivors of the Holocaust abandon their Jewishness when they come to America and hide their past from their son, I kept meeting people who told me even more dramatic stories of discovering they were Jewish. And then more recently on tour in Germany, listening to Germans tell me privately, and with great pain, about Nazis in their family made me find myself glad to be the son of Holocaust survivors because I didn't have to deal with their kind of legacy. My own had always seemed a burden, but by comparison, it seemed far lighter.

7) Not writing can be as wonderful as writing.

It’s only in recent years that I found myself truly enjoying time off between books. Previously I’d never felt so alive as when I was writing, thinking about writing, or even just revising something I’d been working on. But having sold my literary papers to Michigan State University, I feel my legacy for the future is secured, and the pressure to publish is off. I didn’t work on any new book at all in 2009. I’ve been living what a friend half-mockingly called “The Countess Tolstoy Life” when she was briefly unemployed, a life of relative leisure. Reading without being in a rush. Building a fire in the winter. Listening to music. Sitting in the hot tub. Cooking. Going to the gym. Having lunch with friends. Taking the dogs for a walk. Getting massage therapy. Watching a movie. Napping.

I’ve spent so many years turning the world into words, feeling not just bound by a project but surrounded by it, that it's a profound and pleasing release to not be experiencing the intense level of concentration mixed with abstraction that governs my life when I'm in the middle of a book. I’ll be doing another book tour this spring in the U.S. and one in Germany in the fall, so I don’t expect to be working on a new book in 2010 either. Time off. There’s music in those words.

In one of my favorite Henry James stories, “The Middle Years,” a writer sums up his life and the life of many artists: “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

It’s good, for a time, to not feel that driven.

Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of 24 years, and a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back.

The author of 19 books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he’s seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew?

Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can’t identify, and he’s done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His memoir My Germany was published in April 2009 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press, where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Lev writes a monthly column for as well as reviewing for WKAR 90.5 Fm in East Lansing, MI.

You can learn more about Lev and his work on his web site, which also contains contact information.

Lev thanks editor and memoirist Mike Steinberg for the discussion that led to conceiving this essay.


TheWritersDen said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us "aspiring writers" who are just starting out. These lessons are invaluable.

Here's hoping I can follow your lead and never give up, and never give in.

- David Hunter

Mark David Gerson said...

Thanks for the note, David.

Here's another post you might find equally inspiring.

Hang in there!!

Dee S. said...

great post. so many truths here. i contacted agents who had told me to let them know when a publisher had interest in my book, because the market was so bad. when i contacted them, they still hadn't contacted me back. i handled the contract myself.

Mark David Gerson said...

Dee: Your story just demonstrates how conventional agents and publishers are willingly courting extinction. Good for you for empowering yourself!!

Lev Raphael said...

Dee and David: Glad the piece spoke to you--and keep writing and hoping! But make sure you have a full life alongside your writing life. :-)

Mark David Gerson said...

An important reminder, Lev. Thanks!

Karen Walker said...

This spoke to me on so many levels. Thank you both so much. It makes me less envious of those with agents and publishers, and it makes me realize it is really okay to take time off. Because these days, the time off is what is really needed.

Lev Raphael said...

Karen, I think it's too easy when we write to drive ourselves too hard. Without rest, without time off, we suffer.

Todd Schaefer, SSG Admin, Founder said...

Love it, Mark David. I love it when people post really valuable information like this.

Mark David Gerson said...

Thanks, Todd. Always great to see you here!